Payback time for John, the finals' most prolific striker

He has scored more international goals than Ronaldo but, writes Phil Shaw, today the Coventry stalwart can avenge the jokes about 'chilling out' with T&T
Click to follow

Hasely Crawford Stadium, Port of Spain, 19 November 1989

A 13-year-old sits under the giant clock behind the goal where an innocuous-looking shot by the United States defender Paul Caliguiri has just ruined Trinidad & Tobago's hopes of reaching their first World Cup finals.

Frankenstadion, Nuremberg, 15 June 2006

The boy is now a hardened professional of 29 with Premiership experience. T&T have at last made it to the global extravaganza, and as their record scorer it is largely on his shoulders that their hopes rest of springing an upset on England.

Stern John was too young to comprehend why the T&T players were crying as the final whistle sounded 17 years ago. He identified with a Tobagan player called Dwight Yorke, who was only five years older than him. Yet as he left the ground, he wondered why losing a game should have reduced his hero to tears.

He understands now. Along with Yorke, Shaka Hislop and a motley crew from the lower reaches of English, Scottish and Welsh football, John has the opportunity to inflict England's worst World Cup embarrassment since a Scottish-led US side beat them in 1950. And the goal that day came from a son of the Caribbean, Haiti's Larry Gaetjens.

The long road that has led John to Germany, via the El Dorado Comprehensive in Trinidad, New Orleans Riverboat Gamblers, Columbus Crew, Nottingham Forest, Birmingham City and Coventry City has been pitted with twists in fortune. Through it all, however, one fact that should concern England has remained constant: the kid beneath the clock certainly learnt how to hit the net.

Never mind Michael Owen and Thierry Henry, Raul and Ronaldinho: John's 65 goals from 96 caps in 11 years makes him the most prolific striker at the World Cup.

He did not know it then, but the play-off for a place at Italia '90 stirred something inside John that spurred him to dedicate himself to football. "Growing up, I began to realise how big the World Cup is," he explained, "and how massive the prize was that Dwight had seen slip away."

But that near-miss left "a bitter taste", he recalls, and the Trinidad & Tobago public were not always as supportive of John as they will be today. As they floundered during the early qualifying games, he was vilified by a crowd that had grown cynical down the years.

"I think I spoilt them because I'd scored so many goals and I was going through a drought. Even so, I was hurt. I had never turned my back on my country, unlike some players before. I was there through good times and bad, putting my career on the line by playing for T&T.

"Unlike the British guys, our international trips tend to be 12 or 15-hour journeys. Whenever I came back, to Forest, Birmingham or wherever, I couldn't get back in the team and my manager gave me stick. The response from the T&T fans was disappointing. I was thinking: 'I'm coming back to play for you guys, to try to get us to the World Cup and make things better for our country, and this is the thanks I get'."

The turning point was Leo Beenhakker's arrival. "The coach came in at a crucial time for us," said John, scarcely understating T&T's tenuous prospects after a 5-1 defeat in Guatemala and grim 0-0 home draw with Costa Rica. "He made the guys believe, and feel we belonged among the best teams in the world. He's a miracle worker."

John scored twice in the last five minutes to turn disastrous defeat by main rivals Guatemala into a 3-2 triumph. When they needed to beat Mexico in the final match to earn a play-off against Bahrain, he missed a penalty and saw T&T fall behind before scoring twice in a 2-1 win.

At the same time his club form was worrying. Fatigued and struggling for fitness because of the constant travelling across time zones, he failed to score in the first 14 games for Coventry, and on loan to Derby County. But in the second half of the season he averaged a goal every two games. "The World Cup was driving me. I was enjoying it so much I didn't want the season to end."

T&T's presence here is all the more pleasurable for John because the player he terms "a role model all through my career" is back leading the Soca Warriors. "Growing up, all we knew from watching TV was Dwight Yorke and Aston Villa. He made a stepping stone for me and others. He's a great pro. No matter what negative publicity he gets in the papers, he has always been serious about his football.

"When Dwight wasn't playing, I was under tremendous pressure because I was the most recognised player. His return brought a fresh dimension to the team. He draws players towards him and frees up other people. I started to enjoy my game again."

Beenhakker's other master stroke was to pair Yorke in midfield with Chris Birchall, a white winger from Port Vale whose mother was born in Port of Spain. "Chrissie has adapted well to a central role," John said. "International football is like chess. You're waiting for your opponent to make a move. It's not 100mph like the Championship. You must keep the ball. If you don't, it may be in your net before you get it back. Chris is good for us in that respect. No one was sure about him when he first played. Now he's as big as Dwight in Trinidad, if not bigger! Everyone loves him."

Talking of "back home", John revealed that many of the 1.3 million islanders expect to beat England. Some even talk of "a walkover". Really? "That's fans for you. That's what they believe, bless them. But it's football. Anything can happen. As we all know, it's a very strange game."

Strange enough, perhaps, for him to elude John Terry and Rio Ferdinand to score. John has faced both and calls them "great players - a bit different from the guys I'm up against with Coventry, who come slamming into the back of you." Both, John continued, let a striker have the ball before "trying to nick it", giving him a glimmer of hope.

England's languor against Paraguay, allied to T&T's draw with Sweden, further fuels his optimism. "The way they played, we definitely fancy our chances. They weren't at their best. Having said that, they can probably turn on the heat against us. They are all fantastic players who know what they need to do, and they'll be up for a big game.

"But so will we. England have to take us seriously. My club-mates used to say, 'Oh, you guys are just going out to Trinidad to chill out'. They changed their tune when we qualified for the World Cup.

"Our players know how to get stuck in and really have a go. If it was a bunch of local players from the Caribbean, they might not realise the magnitude of being in the finals. We showed in Dortmund that we're well prepared, physically and mentally. We may never get a chance like this again. We need to make the best of it."